Trócsányi: ‘There are different interpretations of democracy’

László Trócsányi [Georgi Gotev]

Critics of Hungary “lack objectivity” and it is a “fantasy” to say the press is not free in this country, said László Trócsányi, Hungary’s Minister of Justice. The Orbán loyalist maintains that democracy can exist in both neo-liberal and “more conservative” contexts. He spoke to Georgi Gotev for EURACTIV France.  

László Trócsányi is a jurist, a former constitutional judge, lawyer, diplomat and university professor. He has been Hungarian Ambassador to both France and Belgium. On 6 June 2014, Trócsányi was appointed Minister of Justice of Hungary.

You recently accepted the position of Minister of Justice. Was this an easy decision, given the criticism Hungary is subject to?

I think that in every member state of the EU, and the world, it is always difficult to be the Minister of Justice, but of course for a lawyer like me, it is a big challenge. One should always try to be useful, and if I can help my country by doing this job, I think I should. I received the invitation last May, and after a little thought, I accepted it.

Observers of Hungary often say that Prime Minister Orbán wants to build a special kind of democracy, an ‘illiberal’ democracy. Can you explain this term?

I can explain it in legal terms. Democracy is a very important European value. It exists in the European treaty. But in constitutional law, there is debate surrounding democracy.

There are two different interpretations: the neo-liberal school and the more conservative school. These are two completely different approaches centred largely on individual rights and collective rights.

We should respect the common good. How do we find the right balance between individual rights and the common good? That is debatable. Individual interests should not be allowed to dominate the interest of the community, just as the common interest should not always overshadow individual interests.

But in Hungary today, the Fidesz party has a majority that allows it to legislate easily, and we often have the impression that decisions are made by Mr. Orbán, alone. The state has been accused of a Putinesque application of power, viewing NGOs as “foreign agents”.

I do not agree with this position. Fidesz no longer has a two thirds majority in parliament. So we have to find compromises with the opposition. Secondly, there are consultations. I have invited political parties to the Ministry of Justice, because we are going to adopt some major laws concerning justice, the civil courts, the criminal courts and above all administrative jurisdictions. It is not Mr. Orbán but the government that makes the decisions. Parliament votes on the laws. There is opposition, and there is a majority.

The organisation Human Rights Watch said that in June, after you had taken up your role, the government made surprise inspections of NGOs and criticised a certain number of them, labelling them “leftist” and “problematic”.

Civil society is a complex notion. You cannot simplify things in that way. There are around 60,000 associations and foundations in Hungary, which points to a certain richness in Hungarian civil society. I myself created a foundation for European Community. This shows that there are lots of initiatives that work very well. True, there are also some problematic cases, but is it possible to make generalisations from a few cases? Can we say that NGOs are in danger in Hungary, that civil society cannot exist? From my point of view, as there are 60,000 associations, foundations, etc., I do not think that civil society is in danger.

I get suspicious when a minister creates an NGO…

But I established it when I was an academic.

You did not agree with one of my questions, but I would still like you to comment on what I read in the HRW report: that Prime Minister Orbán has called civil society organisations “foreign agents”…

Listen, we can say that there are one or two concerns, so I don’t know… Are the positions of this NGO really well-founded or not? Has this NGO been influenced by a political agenda? It seems to me that NGO reports often take a unilateral and, you could say, a one-way view; that they lack dialogue.

I was a judge at the Constitutional Court in Hungary, and I know this subject quite well. Sometimes, when the NGOs don’t like a decision, they say it is time to dismantle the Constitutional Court. And when the Constitutional Court makes a severe ruling about the government, the NGOs remain silent. We need to see greater balance. When we see an NGO constantly trying to prove the government’s guilt, accusing it of this and that, and saying that the Constitutional Court is not working, this is not a serious way to behave.

You have to understand that the Constitutional Court often revokes laws, and nobody writes a report saying “Here [is the proof that] Hungary is democratic.” But when it does not revoke a law that the NGOs believe to be unconstitutional, they immediately say that democracy does not exist. It is a bit annoying, because it lacks objectivity. You have to be fair and objective in life.

You mentioned that you were a member of the Constitutional Court. There has been a certain amount of criticism over amendments to the constitution to alter the role of this court. For example, it cannot rule on laws in the domains of taxation and the budget. Is this normal?

I understand the competencies of constitutional courts across the world and in Europe. By comparison, I think the Hungarian Constitutional Court is fairly balanced.

Concerning the famous fourth amendment to the Hungarian constitution, Belgium and France have also changed their constitutions despite Constitutional Court (CC) rulings that the laws were unconstitutional.

I was a member of the Venice Commission. I know this subject, and it really is very complex. As far as the restriction of competencies is concerned, you are absolutely right, that does exist. But you should take note that when we introduced this system, the budget deficit stood at 9%, and now it is below 3% after three years. It was a crisis situation, and these rules were provisional.

But if you look at CC competencies, there are very few CCs that are able to revoke the judgement of an ordinary court. The Hungarian CC regularly strikes down ordinary judgements, saying the judgement or the procedure was not fair. The competencies of the CC in Hungary are thus broader than in France.

When we talk of Hungary and its constitution, certain subjects repeatedly make an appearance. For example, the eligibility of disabled people to vote…

I know we have been criticised on this point, but I will have to examine it to decide whether or not action is needed.

And the criminalisation of homeless people…

Look, we have not criminalised homelessness. Are you familiar with the legislation in France? You should always compare. Do you imagine that it is possible to live on the streets in Nice, or other towns?

What we have introduced is a delimitation of certain areas: in front of museums, hospitals and schools, where it causes a public disturbance. But there are still areas where people can sleep. These are just restrictions. One should look at the proportionality of these restrictions. This is why the Constitutional Court quashed the ruling of the city of Budapest, as it was not proportional. This means there has been no criminalisation. This assertion is simply not true.

Quite often we hear complaints from people who cross Hungary by car, about extremely heavy fines. Do you receive complaints from other countries about this?

I cannot tell you, because as Minister of Justice I have not received any such complaints. But if there is a complaint, the police deal with it. This concerns the Ministry of the Interior, not the Ministry of Justice. Any kind of corruption…

This is not about corruption, but punishments that are much more severe than those elsewhere.

I cannot give you an answer.

Let’s talk about the freedom of the press. Hungary has plummeted in the press freedom rankings under the Fidesz government. Hungary is still not the worst in the EU…

And not the second worst either.

Why is Hungary so heavily criticised? Does this seem fair to you?

My response is clear. You have to know the press in Hungary. First, part of the press belongs to the private sector.

Second, the Internet is full of criticism of the government. Every day I read the websites of Index and Origo, which are widely read by young people, and I think that the majority of the electronic media are critical of the current government.

In the paper press, different political tendencies coexist. Népszava and Népszabadság both broadly criticise the government, and the Magyar Nemzet occupies the middle ground, but I think it is well balanced. When I look at France, Le Figaro, Libération and others in the online media, I do not understand where the problem is. It is not real. In my opinion, it is a fantasy that press freedom does not exist in Hungary. If there are goodness knows how many pages criticising the government every day, I don’t see where the danger is.

Specialist organisations criticise the fines imposed on journalists. The concept of balanced coverage is not clear, so journalists still feel threatened, whatever they do…

I can’t answer you. I have my role as Minister of Justice. I can tell you that press freedom does exist. There is no danger for journalists. I have never heard of journalists being locked up. I do not see how press freedom is in danger. I often hear [these criticisms], but how is it possible for the press to be so angry with the government and to question press freedom so openly, and yet for people to say that the press is not free? I cannot tell you. These fines you speak of, I don’t know if they are collected or not, but the problem is that everyone says the freedom of the press is in danger. I hear that all the time, and my response is this: Do you see the Hungarian papers every day? Do you read the Hungarian papers?

I will answer you. I did not intend to talk about this, do you know EURACTIV? We publish in 12 languages. We published in Hungarian, before the site was forced to close down. It was regarded as too close to the Socialist Party and had its advertising cut. I am giving you this example. because you ask me if I know the Hungary press. I know EURACTIV Hungary.

I know it. I even cited EURACTIV as a source in my book. I wrote a book on constitutional identity and European integration, which will soon be published in Belgium.

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